The Road to Mountain View

On 22 January 1998 Netscape announced that it would release the sources of the Netscape client line to the Internet. Shortly after the news reached me the following day, I learned that CEO Jim Barksdale was describing my work to national-media reporters as ``fundamental inspiration'' for the decision.

This was the event that commentators in the computer trade press would later call ``the shot heard 'round the world'—and Barksdale had cast me as its Thomas Paine, whether I wanted the role or not. For the first time in the history of the hacker culture, a Fortune 500 darling of Wall Street had bet its future on the belief that our way was right. And, more specifically, that my analysis of `our way' was right.

This is a pretty sobering kind of shock to deal with. I had not been very surprised when The Cathedral and the Bazaar altered the hacker culture's image of itself; that was the result I had been trying for, after all. But I was astonished (to say the least) by the news of its success on the outside. So I did some very hard thinking in first few hours after word reached me. About the state of Linux and the hacker community. About Netscape. And about whether I, personally, had what it would take to make the next step.

It was not difficult to conclude that helping Netscape's gamble succeed had just become a very high priority for the hacker culture, and thus for me personally. If Netscape's gamble failed, we hackers would probably find all the opprobrium of that failure piled on our heads. We'd be discredited for another decade. And that would be just too much to take.

By this time I had been in the hacker culture, living through its various phases, for twenty years. Twenty years of repeatedly watching brilliant ideas, promising starts, and superior technologies crushed by slick marketing. Twenty years of watching hackers dream and sweat and build, too often only to watch the likes of the bad old IBM or the bad new Microsoft walk away with the real-world prizes. Twenty years of living in a ghetto—a fairly comfortable ghetto full of interesting friends, but still one walled in by a vast and intangible barrier of mainsteam prejudice inscribed ``ONLY FLAKES LIVE HERE''.

The Netscape announcement cracked that barrier, if only for a moment; the business world had been jolted out of its complacency about what `hackers' are capable of. But lazy mental habits have huge inertia. If Netscape failed, or perhaps even if they succeeded, the experiment might come to be seen as a unique one-off not worth trying to repeat. And then we'd be back in the same ghetto, walls higher than before.

To prevent that, we needed Netscape to succeed. So I considered what I had learned about bazaar-mode development, and called up Netscape, and offered to help with developing their license and in working out the details of the strategy. In early February I flew to Mountain View at their request for seven hours of meetings with various groups at Netscape HQ, and helped them develop the outline of what would become the Mozilla Public License and the Mozilla organization.

While there, I met with several key people in the Silicon Valley and national Linux community. While helping Netscape was clearly a short-term priority, everybody I spoke with had already understood the need for some longer-term strategy to follow up on the Netscape release. It was time to develop one.